More than eight months after Toronto’s municipal elections, leftists across the city continue to bemoan the Miller dynasty's fall to conservative politician Rob Ford's successful mayoral bid. As Ford, a longtime city councillor, swept to power on promises to slash city spending, pundits who once laughed at the idea of a Ford mayoralty puzzled over what seemed like a surge of centre-right populism.
The mayor has since boasted openly of the potential power of “Ford Nation”, and is basing his campaign of cuts on the idea of a broad mandate from the masses. But had a disenchanted electorate really been swayed by the gravy train argument?
Although many journalists were quick to portray the results as a landslide, declaring a strong mandate for Ford, in reality about 15% of Toronto's resident population (which includes minors, those without status or otherwise ineligible to vote) cast a ballot in his favour last October. Those 383,000 votes, out of more than 2.5 million residents, highlight problems with an archaic electoral system which is coming under increasing scrutiny.
“The system works for people who are elected by it,” said Rob Newman in an interview with the Media Co-op. Newman is project coordinator of Better Ballots, a Toronto-based voting reform initiative that works alongside other civic action groups to lobby and educate. The organization highlights voter turnout and councillor turnover at City Hall as issues in need of serious attention. In the 2010 results, half of Toronto's elected councillors were incumbent; in turn, half of those obtained less than 50% of the popular vote in their wards. With voter turnout typically between 40 and 60%, and a first-past-the-post policy often resulting in councillors being elected by a minority, the incumbency factor and an accompanying lack of political diversity are notable features of Toronto City Council.
“The face of council does not reflect the face of the city that is electing it,” Newman said.
First-past-the-post, also known as winner-take-all, has been criticised for seriously undermining the concept of representation itself, as the electorate sometimes votes strategically to avoid an undesirable outcome instead of selecting a preference deemed unwinnable. Strategic voting was a hot-button issue in last year's campaign. In the rush to stop Ford, “unelectable” candidates were brow-beaten into withdrawing from the race in order to bolster Liberal front-runner George Smitherman. The question of whether or not a candidate should, or even has a right, to run is – said Newman – a symptom of the problem with the current ballot structure.
Ballot disenfranchisement is not the only hurdle to meaningful representation. The issue of constituent access is far more significant, with shockingly high ratios of residents per elected representative. Although muncipalities are allowed to redraw their own ward boundaries, Toronto wards continue to grow in population without a corresponding increase in representation. The city's much more representative two-tiered governance structure was infamously legislated away by Ontario's Conservative government in 1998 (although the first post-amalgamation election still included multi-member wards). Robert MacDermid, a Professor at York University and member of Vote Toronto, has been tracking municipal elections and campaign funding issues for the past seven years.
“Some Toronto wards have become so large that there are 80,000 or 90,000 people per representative. That is bigger than almost every other constituency in Canada. In the city of Toronto...when you just go through the math, a constituent couldn't even talk to their representative once every three years.”
MacDermid argues that the increasingly extreme ratio of councillor to constituent is rooted in a conservative mentality: “[This] is an important facet of neo-liberal and right wing ideals, that we should be looking to the market for solutions... to wean the people off the solutions in the public sector and on to solutions in the private sector…It's really distanced people from municipal representatives, and they [are supposed to] deliver services that touch people's daily lives.”
Voting reform advocates have identified a number of potential alternatives to the status quo, all of which are currently in use elsewhere. The province of Quebec allows for the formation of parties municipally. Both Markham and Oshawa have adopted a councillor-at-large system, in which each councillor co-represents the entire municipality. In San Francisco, migrants can vote. In a series of town halls held across the city last year, Better Ballots gauged popular opinion on elements of voting systems used in New York, Barcelona and other large cities. The most popular proposals included instant runnoffs, better access to voting locations and extending the voting franchise to non-citizens (provincial reforms enacted in time for the 2010 election only addressed the issue of location access and the wording of campaign funding disclosure).
There has been very little overt opposition, from any quarter, to these various proposals. In early June of last year, five months prior to his election as Mayor, Ford himself endorsed the idea of voting reform, specifically the notion of expanding eligibility to include minors.
The major barrier to forward movement on electoral reform is the province's control over muncipalities, ensconced in the Municipal Elections Act. Eligibility, winner-take-all, and other features of the system are determined by the Act, which is itself modeled on federal and provincial election rules. Although Toronto possesses certain unique political powers, granted by the province under the City of Toronto Act, it is unlikely that the city could enact significant reforms without the province's authority. The province, however, won't change the rules without a concerted campaign that includes city politicians, something which they have very little incentive to sign on to.
“Why reform a system that elected you?” asks MacDermid. “It's not something that a politician is going to spend a lot of time on as a primary issue.”
The aggregated impact of these issues extends far beyond the ballot box, with meaningful and ongoing influence over governance decisions – what MacDermid calls “the democracy between elections” – sorely lacking. Ford's conservative spending policies are a case in point. With an effective carte-blanche to do what he pleases, campaign promises notwithstanding, those who will be most affected by cuts to transit, housing advocacy and other municipal services are also those who are the least enfranchised within the electoral system.
Unfortunately, they will have to wait four years to be able to speak the language of electoral democracy, a language with an increasingly shrinking vocabulary.
Mayor Ford did not respond to requests for comment.